“Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did not state a ruling indicating a prohibition to carry in the alleyway.”
I read the text each day through my own experience, which is living in New York City for the past 40 years. When Rav and Shmuel continue the discussion of alleyways in today’s text and dispute what is allowable when one side opens upon an enclosed area, I envision the air shafts that existed when I lived in the East Village in the 1980s in an old tenement building. I was a poor graduate student at New York University and shared a railroad flat apartment with a revolving series of musicians, poets and lost souls. There were narrow air shafts between the buildings and people would throw their garbage bags out the window rather than dragging them down the winding steep steps from the building’s upper floors. I was horrified by the practice after growing up in suburban New Jersey where garbage was placed neatly in bins and hauled out to the curb twice a week for pick-up by the sanitation department.
I lived in a building in the East Village that was owned by two brothers who regularly made the Village Voice’s list of the worse slumlords in the city. The building traversed public and private domains. Drug dealers hid their merchandise behind bricks in the building’s edifice which they would remove when they completed a transaction and junkies would shoot up right there on the front steps rather than taking their purchase to someplace more private. It all unfolded in broad daylight. Ed Kock was mayor of New York City at the time and he would walk the streets asking people how he was doing, but never made it over to the East Village, which was a world onto itself.
Today’s Daf Yomi considers two examples of an alleyway that is closed off on both sides. In one example one side is closed by a garbage heap and in another, it is closed by the sea. The matter is brought before the great Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who is asked about these two scenarios. The voice of the Gemara expresses concern that in the case of the garbage heap it can be removed which would leave the alleyway open and as result considered a public domain for purposes of carrying on Shabbat. In the case of the sea, the waves could raise up the sand to the extent that it could no longer be considered a partition for the alleyway. I envision how the flooding in the city during Hurricane Sandy exposed its outer edges to the East River on one side and the Hudson River on the other.
The Gemara considers an example close to what I experienced in the East Village. If the refuse is ten handbreadths high, and there is a window above it, the residents may throw their garbage out the window and onto the heap. In this case the refuse heap which resides among buildings is considered public and we are told there is little danger that it will be removed. If a heap was in the backyard of a private home, however, it is considered private and could be at risk of removal.
Rabbi HaNasi deferred to offer an opinion on the case of the sea and the refuse heap. We are told that Rabbi HaNasi’s silence on the matter indicates that perhaps he did not issue a ruling because he disagreed with the majority opinion. The Rabbis argue back and forth in today’s text, considering outdoor spaces that belong to a single homeowner and those that belong to many people. The prevailing opinion is that there is more risk of violating Shabbat rules if a single person has control over the public space and can unilaterally act than if it is shared among many.
In New York City many of us reside in small apartments. Before we had to shelter in place during the pandemic, we lived much of our lives in public spaces, where we have little ability to alter our surroundings, unlike homeowners in the suburbs who can hire contractors and add on extra rooms to their houses or landscape their backyards. The Rabbis who considered shared public spaces in today’s text seemed to understand the common experience of living in a densely populated community where our boundaries are created through the small signs of acknowledgement we receive from the people who share our public space each day – the construction workers, doormen, baristas, dog walkers and neighbors.